By Li Hongmei, Special to Sina English
The United States' so-called "pivot" toward Asia may see a precursor of its navy return to the region, which is described by Washington as “part of strategic interests.”
Defense secretary Leon Panetta has already declared that the US Navy will adjust its Pacific-Atlantic deployment from the roughly 50-50 ratio it stands at now to something more like 60-40.
Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, one of its most important naval bases during the Vietnam War, is weighed by the Pentagon as vital given its function as a pathway between northeast and southeast Asia, and could dent China’s tactical advantages if a conflict erupts in the South China Sea.
The American army is moving away from the Middle East and back towards the Far East, most probably, to counter China's increasing influence in the region.
US ships are not in Cam Ranh Bay yet and US military personnel are largely not welcomed by the people of Vietnam. But the bay will sooner or later be used by the American navy.
Moreover, The US also intends to use Thailand’s U-Tapao military airport for its “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations and for climate studies by Nasa.”
The US will increase its activities at U-tapao so that it may use Thailand as a base in response to the growing Chinese military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, a source close to Thai authorities was cited by media as saying.
The source said several factors have prompted the US to revive its Asia-Pacific presence after focusing on the Middle East for the past decade. The factors include China's military expansion in Asia, the South China Sea maritime territory dispute and nuclear cooperation in recent years between Myanmar and North Korea.
Over the issue, the US defense chief Panetta already sought bilateral talks with his Thai counterpart Sukumpol Suwanatat during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 1-3.
The US has actualy discussed its planned activities at U-Tapao in all the meetings with Thai military authorities.
"This shows the US is returning to the region in response to the increasing power of China and to develop ties with Asean before it leans on China," the source said.
Thailand is soon likely to be on the list of the Asia-Pacific countries where US troops will be based on a permanent basis, now that the Pentagon is mulling its return to the U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield which was a military base for the USAF B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s to launch airstrikes on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
It is clear that conducting atmospheric studies will hardly be the only goal of the US base in U-Tapao. Speaking on condition of anonymity earlier this month, a spokesman for the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters said that Bangkok is concerned over China’s reaction to the possible use of U-Tapao airfield by the United States which China fears may be used for collecting intelligence information.
These concerns seem well-grounded given that there is already a small-sized US company in U-Tapao which deals with refueling US planes and ships which transport US servicemen and military supplies to Afghanistan and Iraq. Speculation is also rife that U-Tapao’s US sector was used by stealth aircraft to transport foreign terrorism suspects to the United States and its Guantanamo base in Cuba.
Washington wants Bangkok to help it implement a program on aerial surveillance of the transportation of trade and military cargos en route from the Middle East to the Pacific Ocean. This is the main maritime transportation artery that China uses to develop its trade relations with many Asian and African countries.
Experts say Washington is dismayed about China’s ever-increasing geo-economic might which may well be transformed into a military and political clout. This also explains why the U.S. is trying to resuscitate its Cold War-era dominance in the Asia-Pacific area.